Crossing Borders

Photo by Andrew Malick. Taken to the east of the Tijuana Border Crossing along the border fence.

Urban Development in Tijuana

Posted by Rick Skwiot February 12, 2009

"Hands-on immersion in informal settlements." That's how John Hoal describes the experience he and two groups of Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Design students had working in the Tijuana River watershed as part of design studios this past summer and fall.

The studios gave students a chance to work with complex environmental and political issues while providing architectural services to people who can't afford them. They were charged with "radicalizing" the architecture of slums, or barrios, located on steep ravines just south of the border between San Diego, USA, and Tijuana Mexico. In the end, their urban design and architectural strategies will affect thousands of people, providing a blueprint to help foment social integration and cohesive community action.

The site of the architecture studios presented students prime territory to learn their trade. Migrants from across Mexico and Latin America have been streaming into the ravines along the Tijuana River, lured by work at the 3,000 assembly plants, or maquiladoras, that line the U.S.-Mexico border. Sheeted rainwater often pours down the ravines into the river, washing out makeshift homes and making their inhabitation precarious.

These communities of squatters typify the majority of urban growth worldwide, says Hoal, Associate Professor in the graduate school. He worked with similar communities in his native South Africa, where more than 2 million people live in "informal" settlements in and around the cities. In the Tijuana River watershed, communities evolve piecemeal from squatters' plastic tents into makeshift hovels built of scrap plywood and discarded San Diego garage doors, eventually becoming permanent residences. The informal communities lack government-provided streets, sewers, and water, as well as a unified culture and history, being comprised of families from Ecuador, Peru, Guatemala, Mexico, and other Latin American countries.

The studios focused on five Tijuana locales that presented conditions of "astounding complexity that provide a real lesson for students," according to Hoal, as they have to "go into a complex environment and work out how to intervene as architects and understand the political role for architectural practice as social activism."
During the summer studio, Hoal and two Woodbury University San Diego School of Architecture faculty members, Rene Peralta and Andrea Dietz, led 13 urban design students in a two-month investigation of the environmental, political, and socio-economic conditions of the Tijuana River watershed, where security fences separate the first and third worlds.

Two of the students, Kimberly Newcomer and Brian Michener, were charged with critically analyzing a pre-existing but limited master plan for Los Laureles Canyon, population 80,000. They sought to ingest, digest, and synthesize the complex profile of the canyon and surrounding environment while devising new strategies to address its myriad problems.

Their plan for the area had to be organic. "Not placing something in the community," explains Newcomer, but creating "something that grows out of the community, a plan that would stick. You can't do anything without community buy-in. They government won't support it or enforce it."

"It was a complicated summer," Michener confirms. "We had to quickly understand both San Diego and Tijuana and run with management strategies—programming space, doing research, and learning on the fly."

Another complicating factor was Mexico's squatting laws, which give occupants of undeveloped land ownership after five years—in turn creating pressure to develop open land. Add to that the demands of a burgeoning population—Tijuana is Mexico's fastest-growing city—and preserving open space is incredibly difficult. When land is set aside to address, say, conservation issues, squatters inevitably show up and stay.

"There is no government enforcement of open-space ownership,"  observes Michener. "How do you design in those conditions?"

Despite the complex circumstances, they were able to develop an innovative plan that addresses numerous problems in Los Laureles Canyon. Two overriding issues that stood out to Newcomer were flood control and the lack of recreational facilities for children, who had no place to play in the steep canyon or its base, which frequently flooded. One part of their plan addresses both issues: the creation of a soccer field at the bottom of the ravine with a water cistern beneath it, where rainwater will collect.

Another unique component of the plan is a series of seven funiculars that scale the 350-foot-deep ravine to link the vertical community, providing a much-needed means of transport for people and goods. Their research revealed that those types of cable railways are fairly common in other parts of the world.

"We placed the funiculars so they all tie together and tie-in to existing infrastructure, such as schools," Newcomer explains, "trying to move as little of the infrastructure as possible."

The funiculars will also link the people living in Los Laureles Canyon to a new community center at the south end of the canyon, which was the focus of the fall design studio. According to Hoal, the goal for those students was to give people living in the canyon "different design and program options for a community center that provides a gathering place and identity, as well as a locale for critically needed social, environmental, and educational services." Those services could include health and governmental offices, a post office, adult education facilities, childcare, and construction and materials demonstration programs.

The student proposals are going to their client, Oscar Romo (architect and Coastal Training Program coordinator for the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve) before being sent to the Tijuana planning department and affected communities, in the hopes of stimulating interest and raising funds, Hoal says.

"The proposals challenge conventional thinking and will have meaningful influence in the planning department," he says, which "does not have urban design and architectural expertise in-house."

These studios also provide a meaningful experience for students. "They combine public service and learning how architects and architecture can have a profound and lasting impact on communities in the growing type of city in the world today—informal cities," says Hoal, noting that these types of student studios are "few and far between" among U.S. architecture schools. "It's having real clients and engaging with real communities and contributing to the creation of a sustainable urbanism."

Michener is emphatic: "This is an actual project. It’s going to happen."